NEWARK, NJ — The funeral service for Essex County Freeholder Lebby C. Jones at Franklin-St. John’s United Methodist Church in Newark on Thursday, Jan. 17, was attended by a host of local officials, including: Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver, Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo, East Orange and Essex County Democratic committees Chairman Leroy Jones, Essex County Sheriff Armando Fontoura, Essex County clerk Chris Durkin, Assemblymen Tom Giblin and Ralph Caputo, Assemblywoman Britnee Timberlake, Mayor Tony Vauss, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka and East Orange Mayor Ted Green, to name just a few. Jones died of cancer Wednesday, Jan. 9.
Notable former local officials who previously worked with Jones, including former East Ward Councilman Quinzell McKenzie and former police Chief Michael Chase, also paid their respects, as did former Irvington NAACP President Merrick Harris and Irvington National Action Network President and at large Councilwoman October Hudley.
Hudley is Jones’ handpicked successor to lead the local NAN chapter she founded in 2014. Hudley also spoke at Jones’ funeral, along with Oliver, Leroy Jones, DiVincenzo, freeholder President Brendan Gill, Baraka, Vauss, Timberlake, Chase and Capt. Monique Smith of the Irvington Police Division.
Timberlake read all the public proclamations and resolutions for Jones, issued from a wide range of people, including Gov. Phil Murphy, state Senate President Stephen Sweeney, Green and the East Orange City Council, the Irvington Municipal Council, the Newark City Council, the Newark Education Association teachers’ union and others. The NEA also sent flowers, and they weren’t alone in this.
“Lebby was a South Carolinian through and through and I know that she spent many, many decades here in the township of Irvington, but she never, ever forgot her roots and from whence she came,” said Oliver on Thursday, Jan. 17. “Whenever I had a conversation with Lebby, she never failed to include in that conversation that she was born in 1943, in Jim Crow, South Carolina. And for those who do not understand why Lebby was who she was, it’s because she was molded from the segregationist South and how her people had been treated and alienated. That was what drove Lebby Jones. Having the opportunity to come to New Jersey, things were slightly different, but Lebby never failed to tell me that, while things had changed, some things had remained the same.”
Oliver said Jones was proud of her work in the civil rights movement and never forgot that activism was synonymous with positive change.
“Every single time I interacted with Lebby, whatever the issue of the day was, whatever controversy or social thing we were dealing with in that particular month or year, she told me nobody around here could tell her nothing, because she was part of the civil rights movement,” continued Oliver. “That was what molded and guided Lebby to do the work that she did. That was what it was. If you loved Lebby C. Jones, if you want to continue to hold up her legacy, you step out and do the work that she has done. Lebby cared about our children, she cared about our families, she cared about our mothers who are struggling to keep it together, she cared about access to affordable housing for people, she cared about people having an opportunity to get higher education, she cared about social justice, she cared about people’s human rights and their civil rights.
“She was a lover of all people but, above all else, she was leading in the tradition of Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman and Fannie Lou Hamer. She led in the tradition of so many of our black and brown women, whose names you will never know, but Lebby served and should be edified at that level.”
Baraka said it was appropriate that Jones’ funeral took place two days after Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday and four days before the observance of the national holiday in his honor, since she was also a veteran of the movement that pushed for human rights. Baraka and others said Jones’ death meant the loss of another civil rights soldier and change agent, but that doesn’t mean the struggle wouldn’t carry on without them.
“I just want to say God is an architect and Lebby lay down and said goodbye today, the same time that we contemplate and figure out and commemorate the life of the greatest drum major of all, and that’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,” said Baraka on Thursday, Jan. 17. “I say God is an architect, because he has an ultimate plan. I know our plans don’t always coincide with God’s plans, but God is the ultimate planner and he knows what he is doing. As we contemplate Dr. King, we get to contemplate Lebby Jones.”
Baraka was the principal of Weequahic High School and Central High School in Newark prior to being elected mayor of Newark for the first time in 2014, so working in education is something he had in common with Jones, who worked as a Newark teacher for 30 years before retiring.
“The thing about Miss Jones, I know, is I knew her more as an educator than as an elected official,” he said. “She was not like James and John of Zebediah. She did not ask to sit on the right and left of the Lord, simply to have his glory and his power and his seat. She was a master servant. We are all here and you can see this room is filled today because she was a servant and her service is what qualified her for leadership. She was not that person. Her service spoke for her. Everything she did was about people and that’s very clear. Everybody has said that to you.”
Baraka also said Jones reminded him “over and over again” that “Newark and Irvington was the same place, particularly Springfield Avenue” and “our people are our people, wherever we are, and boundaries can’t separate us” because “we’re all the same folk” and “whatever you do in Newark is going to affect us in Irvington so, boy, you better be doing what’s right, particularly on Springfield Avenue.” He said that’s what he appreciated most about her and it was up to everyone to make sure her legacy wasn’t watered down.
“The reality is, let us be mindful of why God chose to take Lebby now, while we’re contemplating the greatness of Martin Luther King Jr. and all that’s happening in this country, in this county, in this state, in this world that we get to contemplate her for real, not just this kind of reminiscent idea of who she was,” continued Baraka. “We don’t want to water her down to be something that she was not. We don’t want to make her into something, like they made King into something. The very people who assassinated King are the people who gave us permission to praise him. We don’t want to water her down to be this person that she wasn’t. I knew her. On the street, when she approached me, she didn’t ask for no meeting, as was said, she didn’t ask to come talk to you, she didn’t ask to be polite. She said what she wanted to say when she wanted to say it and how she wanted to say it and said ‘God bless you’ when she was finished with you.”
Vauss agreed with Baraka and Oliver that there is still plenty of work left to do for Jones’ successors, but he said her and Beasley’s legacy is alive and well in Irvington.
“In the township of Irvington, I’ve had the privilege of serving with two mentors — one, the honorable D. Bilal Beasley, and the other, the honorable Lebby C. Jones. I always looked at Bilal and Lebby as a one-two punch. Bilal was the calm, Lebby was the storm, and she was going to tell you about yourself, whether you wanted to hear it or not,” said Vauss on Thursday, Jan. 17. “I now represent an organization that was built on the backs of D. Bilal Beasley and Lebby C. Jones over a span of 40 years and what we have to understand is that they fought the battles that I didn’t have to fight. They fought battles in the ‘70s and ‘80s and in the ‘90s, so that I could be here today. And not only myself; there’s an entire organization here from the township of Irvington, from every elected councilperson, school board member, appointed commissioner and employee in the township of Irvington. I want all of you to stand up, because I know she touched your lives as well.”
Chase agreed with the others, but said current municipal and county elected officials should do more to live up to the example Jones and Beasley set by their words and actions.
“Lebby was family. Her and Bilal Beasley made me part of their family and when Lebby or Bilal made you part of their family, you were blood,” said Chase on Thursday,Jan. 17. The former police chief is fighting departmental disciplinary charges he was first accused of in 2012, prior to his retirement in 2015, and has two active lawsuits against the town, Police Division, Vauss and Public Safety Director Tracy Bowers. “I know she loved and she celebrated Sheila Oliver becoming lieutenant governor. She reveled in her relationship with Chairman Jones. I was there at one of her meetings, where we had a fundraiser and he told her, ‘As long as you want to be where you want to be, you’re going to get the party line.’ I respect that. She was that kind of person. She brought out the best in those that she cared about, because she expected the best from those that she cared about.”
Chase said Jones epitomized the proper way to wield political power and influence, adding, “If you knew Lebby, you loved her. If you didn’t love her, then you weren’t doing the right thing, because she was that kind of person.”
“When you’re in a desert, sometimes you gotta get water. Being around Lebby was getting water,” Chase continued. “She would teach you things and she would tell you things and, with Lebby, there was no difference. Telling you, she wanted you to do it; teaching you, she was hoping you would do it; but either way, you better do it. She would tell you to stand up, reach up, but don’t forget to bend down and lift someone up. That’s what she was about. She not only had a power, but she wanted to empower others. She wanted us to remember that just because you up, doesn’t mean everybody else is up. She wanted us to lift others up. That’s Lebby. She was someone who cared deeply for me and I don’t have a void, because I have the memory of Lebby in my heart. There will never be a void. It might not be anymore future until that other day, but I’ll never have a void, because her love was real.”
“I loved that lady,” he added. “I will continue to love the memory of that lady and, whatever I do, I’m going to do in the thought of that lady. I hope these people that showed themselves here remember that and do the same.”